Fidel Castro’s Soviet adventures in rare photos from his first visit to USSR
Castro first visited the USSR in 1963, aged 36, and four years prior to his visit, Havana established diplomatic ties with Moscow. Having been the Soviet Union's ally during the Cold War, relations between the two nations' leaders cooled in 1962, when the USSR's Nikita Khrushchev removed Soviet missiles from the Caribbean island following an agreement with US President John F. Kennedy. Castro said the Soviet leader did it all behind his back.
To improve relations with Cuba, Khrushchev gave him a personal invitation to travel to the USSR. The visit lasted about 40 days, in which the revolutionary leader made an exciting tour all around the country.
Castro arrived in the USSR amid top secrecy in late April 1963. The date and time of the flight from Havana were kept secret. Castro’s journey to Russia started in the northern city of Murmansk.
Murmansk was not a random choice for Castro's visit. Not far from the city was the town of Severodvinsk, which was a Soviet submarine base. Castro was the only foreigner allowed to set foot in a nuclear sub. The Soviet military even showed him a loaded nuclear missile.
Castro then visited many places in Russia and then the Soviet republics. Everywhere he went, he received a rock star welcome from the Soviet people .
Castro joined Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Lenin mausoleum to watch Moscow's Red Square parade on May Day.
During his stay in Moscow, Castro reportedly sneaked from his Kremlin apartment and enjoyed a night walk in the heart of the Russian capital.
Castro’s speech at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow was also part of his 1963 visit. Before the meeting in Luzhniki, Fidel reportedly asked Khrushchev: “Can you allow people not only be present at the stadium, but also on the football field? I have a feeling of some emptiness and isolation from the audience.”
And Khrushchev allowed it. Thousands of Russian gathered in the stadium and on the football field to listen to the revolutionary leader, whose speech was reportedly improvised.
Moscow was not the only city he visited – Castro got a glimpse of the whole of Russia. He enjoyed meeting with ordinary Soviet people – not politicians, but lumberjacks, peasants, and workers.
When visiting Siberia, Castro’s train got surrounded by lumberjacks, who somehow learned that the revolutionary leader was in their area and refused to leave before they saw him with their own eyes. Fidel heard the noise outside, and went to see. He was caught on the train's steps wearing just his under shirt, while outside was the severe Siberian winter. The men did not want the legendary figure to leave without talking to them, so they offered him a warm quilted jacket. Castro was so touched that he wanted to give the men something back, but only found three cigars in his trouser pocket. He gave them to the large crowd of men, with each of them taking just one puff before passing it on. The scene brought tears to the Cuban's eyes. “In the West, no one would have behaved that way. A person who got the cigars first would have pocketed them. Now I understand the strength behind the Russian people,” Castro said.
During his tour to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Castro expressed a wish to go to a local department store. Uzbekistan's minister of trade was put behind the counter to serve the Cuban leader, who was buying a leather belt. Fidel was furious, saying he wanted to meet the ordinary people and not the officials.
In Uzbekistan he even drove a tractor on a cotton field of Kzyl Uzbekistan collective farm.
Another similar incident that happened in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was even reported to Khrushchev. During one of the meetings, Castro was presented with flowers by a little girl. He asked her to tell him which kindergarten she attended, and later said he wanted to go there to meet his little friend. Castro's wish caught officials off guard, and they tried to avoid the visit by all means, but the Cuban leader insisted. In the end, he was taken to a kindergarten with a shiny plate with the number Fidel remembered, where he was again met by the girl. Castro asked the child to show him around, but the girl replied: “I'm so sorry, I can still get lost, and it’s only my second day here!” It turned out that the girl was from a poor orphanage, and the officials had transferred her to an exemplary one to show off to Castro, and replaced the sign on it.
Castro criticized the authorities' “flashiness” at an official dinner later. “You do many things to impress. I don't need it. You are building a metro in the city, but stop such important works because of the motorcade driving me around, to be able to comfortably pass through the area. I'm not an arrogant man, I could have taken a side road not to disturb,” he told Soviet officials.
During his visit to Lake Baikal, where he was fishing with Soviet geologists, he was approached one day by a young man with a bear cub. The man said he had travelled through the taiga to see the Cuban revolutionary leader talking to people at some public rally in the region, but accidentally met him in the wilderness of the lake. He gave Castro his bear as a present, which Fidel later named Baikal. The bear then travelled with Castro to Cuba.